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Archive Columns: Identity Politics

On Diversity in College Admissions


     In The Shape of the River, a tedious work of near-perfect circularity, Harvard’s Bok and Princeton’s Bowen tried every contortion possible to make the case for affirmative action and failed.  According to their data, affirmative action benefitted its beneficiaries. (If that sounds tautological, you will be saddened to note that even that minimal effect was by no means obvious).  Unable to prove more social good than harm, they ended with another thin triumph: students who are taught to value diversity tend, well, to value diversity.

     Diversity appeals to an open society because it seems  to “prove” civil rights’ goal, i.e., equal access. But diversity only proves this when it occurs unaided.  When plotted out, diversity subverts equal access, lowers standards and codifies, by implication, the inferiority of nonwhites.

     While authentic diversity gratifies, an honest racial imbalance does not necessarily rankle, nor prove unfairness. Nobody interested in basketball argues teams should include more whites.  Where equal access exists, people naturally prefer merited disproportion to  rigged diversity.

     Universities can argue that education, unlike NBA membership, must be available universally.  But the issue here is not the admission of minorities, but the admission of minorities under clearly lower standards. Faced with a racial imbalance, whose causes they would rather ignore, universities justify affirmative action’s lower standard on grounds of diversity and then justify diversity by, essentially, proclaiming it good.

     But why is an honest racial imbalance more embarrassing and more harmful than the institutional assumption of inferiority, or the prejudices that fester when lower performance is observed and then, worse, merely suspected?     

     Rigging proportionality masks the gap and absolves universities from charges of exclusivity.  They then must argue that the social benefit derived from association with exotics makes up for individual deficiencies of merit.  Two points: it is paradoxical that, to make diversity a compelling state benefit, one must argue that it enriches the experience of whites. Second, it is troubling that universities should have to ground the benefit of diversity in this exotic  notion of black differentness.  And yet, obviously, if blacks were not assumed to bring something uniquely  “black” to the campus -  if differentness were not assumed - there could be no plausible argument for diversity since their presence would not then, in any meaningful way, be diversifying.

     Assuming differentness is prejudicial to the individual and yet, over the group, it is statistically valid. Unfortunately so in this case because (stressing modern) the modern black culture that encourages this differentness seems to be the cause of the achievement gap. Culture, anyway, seems to provide the only non-racist explanation.  (Bok and Bowen are interestingly demure on this point, but agree that poverty does not account for it.)

     To the extent the current black culture is hostile to education, the policy of favoring it is odd, to say the least; to the extent the black candidate does not identify with the culture, his/her value as someone “diverse” is debatable; to the extent the policy encourages a sense of  black exception and a dispensation from mainstream standards, it dooms blacks to continued under-achievement.

     One could argue sympathetically that the gap and the pathologies of the culture result from systemic oppression, but it is hard to see how affirmative action, which encourages a separatist identity and assumes inferiority, does anything but continue that oppression with a more patronizing face.

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